The small, one-story building stood out as notable, compared to the miles of empty West Texas plains that surrounded it.
A few green, canvas covered trucks sat parked in a row in a dimly lit parking lot and a pole stood in front. At its top, a flag was flapping lightly in a gentle breeze.
Anyone who drove past the small building would think very little of it. Although a car driving by would be notable to the people in the building since cars rarely drove down the quiet country road that eventually leads out to the interstate four miles away or to the college town of Lubbock almost fifteen miles in the other direction.
The short driveway that led through a single opening in the chain-link fence that stretched around the building was blocked by a small guard post, whose current guard was slowly nodding off, his brownish digi-pattern cap pulled low on his head.
He would be in a world of hurt if his Sergeant found him sleeping on duty, but that typically only happened when they rotated in new non-coms. This was a posting where nothing ever happened, and even those in charge tended to fall into complacency.
The Private was almost asleep when he felt the ground rumble. The man jerked awake, and for half a second wondered why Texas would be having an earthquake, when it seemed like the entire world ripped apart.
Only the concrete structure around him and its standard issue bullet proof glass protected him from that first barrage as the surrounding area seemed to become daytime for a brief moment.
Of all the men stationed at the small munitions depot, only the drowsy guard had a chance to realize his fate, if only for a few seconds. The explosion that followed, as the munitions stored in the building joined the inferno, ripped the concrete booth into chunks and shattered the glass into a thousand small missiles.
Fifteen miles away, the Lubbock 911 dispatch center phones started a cascade, quickly overwhelming operators used to dealing with auto accidents and incidents involving drunken college kids.
Every call was about the fireball that rose out of the darkness outside of town and the shockwave that rattled windows and set off car alarms.
Fort Meade, Florida
John Taylor heard the ringing phone inside the office from underneath an old, beat up Chevy, which should have been put to pasture years before.
He ignored the phone, instead focusing on not covering himself in oil as he opened up the drain plug to let the black sludge pour out. He wondered, for the hundredth time, how people could skip even the most simple maintenance.
Even if he hadn’t been under the car, arms covered in dirt and grime, Taylor wouldn’t have made a move to the office to answer the phone. While most of the other mechanics tried to cover the phones for Albert, in case he was with a customer; everyone knew Taylor didn’t deal with people.
Sure, he was pleasant enough. He said ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ to his coworkers. He helped hold or carry stuff when needed, and even picked up shifts when someone wanted a day off. But everyone knew Taylor didn’t deal with people, especially the public.
He was a closed book, and none of them had seen even a peek inside its cover. Most days Taylor managed to say less than a dozen words the entire day. There was a pool going to see if he could stay under a thousand for the year.
So everyone, including Taylor himself, was surprised when a few moments after the phone stopped ringing Albert Franklin stuck his head out of the office and shouted.
“Taylor, get your ass up here. You have a phone call.”
John pulled himself out from under the car and wiped his hands on a dirty rag hanging from one pocket. It would be tough to determine if the cloth removed any of the built up grease, or just added more of it to his hands.
As he walked into the office, Taylor gave a questioning eyebrow to Albert. Long before mustering out of the Army, Albert had mastered the poker face known to non-coms across the globe. Taylor knew it was useless to try and see through that stoic façade.
Shrugging, he took the grimy receiver from Albert and said, “Taylor.”
A voice from the past, one he hadn’t expected ever to hear again, echoed out of the handset, “John, it’s Trevor Robles. How do you feel about Texas?”
Taylor paused a moment, his mind racing back to the events six months before. He couldn’t say they’d changed his life since he was just as aimless now as he was before the adventure in Miami, but they had made an impact.
He had shown up in Miami looking for his fiancée who, along with the rest of the world, had thought he was dead. His unit had been wiped out in Afghanistan, and Taylor had spent three long years as a prisoner in a terrorist camp. Instead of picking his life back up, Taylor learned that his fiancée had moved on, along with everything else he had known. He’d been left wandering the streets of Miami.
He wasn’t even sure, himself, what he’d been looking for. What he had found, though, was a Russian woman. She’d escaped from human traffickers, a dead Federal Marshal, and one hell of a mess.
When all was said and done, more than a dozen men were dead, a senior Federal Marshal was in jail for corruption and accessory to murder, and the girl had disappeared into the witness protection program.
Robles was one of the Marshals involved with that whole mess and had managed to get grabbed up by the Russians, thanks to his crooked boss. Robles and Taylor had left things amicably when it was all over; but Taylor hadn’t expected to hear from the man, ever again.
“I don’t know, its fine I guess. I know it gets hot there,” Taylor said answering, although still not understanding the question.
“It does at that.”
“What can I do for the Marshals service?”
“I’m not actually with the Marshals, anymore,” Robles said. “I didn’t feel very comfortable with them, considering what happened.”
“Ohh,” Taylor said, still trying to work out where this was going.
“I’m with the FBI, now. We’ve had something happen down here, and I could use your help.”
“What would the FBI need with me?”
“Well, it’s not the FBI exactly. The case involves a young soldier, and his mother needs some help. Could I talk you into coming down and meeting with her? I’ll set you up with a ticket and lodging, so it’s just a few days of your time.”
Taylor knew Robles was trying to smooth things along by mentioning the woman’s child was a soldier. He didn’t particularly like Robles attempt to play him and liked the idea of getting back into the world even less.
“I don’t know. I’ve got a job here, and they count on me...”
Taylor was interrupted by Albert calling out behind him, “Bullshit. You’re a fine mechanic, but we’ll live without you. I’m not gonna let you hide out here for the rest of your life.”
John frowned. He hadn’t realized Albert was still in earshot. After the first month, Albert had started making comments about Taylor’s self-exile. The observations had gradually increased over time, with Albert making no secret of wanting Taylor to get back to some semblance of a normal life.
While John could see Albert’s point, he wasn’t sure he agreed. He was even less sure going to Texas to help out the mother of a soldier being investigated by the FBI would be anything even remotely like normal.
“John, it’s important. She has no one else to turn to,” Robles continued through the phone. “No one out here is taking her seriously. Just meet with her. If you say ‘no, ‘ after that, then I won’t bug you again. I promise.”
Taylor thought for a minute longer and then sighed.
“Fine. Email me the details and I’ll come out and meet her. No promises, though.”
“Of course. Thanks, John.”
“Yeah,” Taylor said, and hung up.
He gave a glower to Albert who shrugged it off and went back to work. That night, in his small efficiency apartment, Taylor checked his email and found the information from Robles. He must have been desperate since the ticket was for early the next morning.
What Taylor wasn’t happy to see was the ticket was one way.
But, he had promised, and Taylor still believed that meant something.
The flight had indeed been early, and with the hour time difference, John knew it was going to be a long day.
Walking through a confusing mess of people and construction barriers, Taylor wasn’t surprised to see Robles standing by the curb, leaning against a black SUV.
Most people had to circle round and round, calling their friend or family member to arrange the right moment to swoop in and pick them up. Considering the state of the world, police no longer let cars just loiter around airports.
Robles, however, had that nonchalant entitlement that most members of law enforcement had. Not that Taylor blamed him. If he could flash a badge and get to park at the curb, he would have done it in a heartbeat, too.
The plus side was Taylor didn’t have to wait.
Robles saw him and pushed off the SUV.
“Glad you came,” he said, reaching out for John’s hand.
“Yeah,” was all Taylor said in response.
Robles just shook his head. Taylor had been a man of few words over the couple of weeks they had dealt with each other. It was pretty clear nothing had changed on that front.
He took Taylor’s bag and pushed it into the back seat, motioning for him to hop in. Once both men were in the SUV and driving away from the airport, Robles got down to business.
“Have you seen anything about that army supply depot that blew up late last week?”
“I heard it happened,” Taylor said, thinking back to a news report he had heard in passing a few days before the call from Robles.
Taylor didn’t watch much TV and didn’t follow the news, not really caring what happened in the world. But the garage had a TV playing in the lobby, and he would catch random bits from time to time.
“Four days ago, in the early evening, a munitions depot just east of Lubbock blew up, killing everyone on site. It was, by all reports, pretty massive. Besides small arms and some explosives like C4 stored at the facility, there were also drums of diesel on site. All that together made for one hell of an explosion. It managed to break windows, fifteen miles away in Lubbock.”
“Ok,” Taylor replied.
“Since it was a Federal building, the Bureau was dispatched. Thanks to all the supplies in the building cooking off, our techs couldn’t actually reconstruct what caused the initial blast, but we know a few things, and those aren’t good.
“At 9:15, a code was punched into the security system, turning off all cameras around the compound, including those on the perimeter. The code also shut off all the sensors that record doors opening and closing. Forty minutes later the building exploded. While the explosion could have been an accident, the cameras and sensors being turned off can’t be.”
“So you think the munitions were set off on purpose?”
“That’s the working theory.”
“And the cameras and everything were turned off to let the person set everything off?”
“Do you know who turned off the cameras?”
“Yes. The code that was used belonged to a Corporal named Samar Abbas.”
Taylor turned and looked at Robles.
“Exactly,” Robles said acknowledging the unasked question. “Abbas and his mother, Naziha Hayali, came to the US on a special immigrant visa in 2006. Her husband was a translator assigned to 4th Infantry Division starting in 2004. When his family was threatened he applied for, and received, a visa to come to the US. He died two days before the family immigrated, but the unit he had been assigned to rallied and pushed hard for the State Department to honor the visas, which they did.”
“Surprising,” Taylor said.
It was well known among members of the military who served in the Middle East that visas for translators and locals who assisted the US Army were regularly not granted. Visas for family members was even rarer.
“This was still early in the war,” Robles explained, “and it seems the commander of the unit he was assigned to was connected and pulled some strings. They both became citizens three years later.”
“I’m assuming the FBI thinks the explosion is terrorist related?”
“You’d be right. We are tearing this kid’s life apart to find the connection, but the media has already picked up on it, and are starting to report it as a possible act of terrorism. His mother swears he was not very religious, let alone radicalized. You can imagine the kind of reception that is getting.”
“Yeah. So where do I fit in?”
“She’s been looking for someone to help her prove her son didn’t do it. She can’t get anyone local to take her call, and the Bureau isn’t listening. You did pretty well for yourself in Miami, and have first-hand knowledge of terrorism, so I thought of you.”
“Does your work know you are doing this?”
“No. And I won’t be able to help you at all. As it is, if my bosses catch wind of this there will be hell to pay. But, Mrs. Hayali is pretty convincing, and I felt sorry for her.”
“I don’t think I’m the right person for this. I’m not an investigator.”
“You’re better than you think. The stuff you managed in Florida was well done. You were able to track straight to the Russians and figure out we had someone on the Russian’s payroll in our office before we did. Plus, you’re probably the closest thing she is going to be able to get to one. No one wants to be seen as consorting with terrorists, so she isn’t even able to get anyone to take her calls. I’ve tried other people I know professionally first, and they all said ‘no.’”
“I guess that’s why you didn’t give me specifics before I got here.”
“More or less. Just talk to her. That’s all I’m asking.”
“Ok, but no promises,” Taylor said, looking out the window as they passed through the northern freeways surrounding the city. “She lives here in Dallas?”
“Plano, technically. It’s one of the suburbs just north of the city.”
The rest of the drive was passed in silence. Taylor wasn’t much for small talk, and Robles had learned enough about the man to know to leave him alone.
They exited the freeway and took several turns into the maze-like streets that make up a standard American suburb.
Without the GPS that regularly gave Robles instructions on where to turn, Taylor was pretty confident they would never have found the small, one-story house.
Pulling up to the curb, both men got out and walked up to the door.
A small Arabic woman answered when they rang the bell. She was wearing a loose-fitting dress that covered her all the way to her toes, but wouldn’t have stood out in any western city.
Her head was covered by a hijab, the only outward sign of her religion. Her face was lined and weathered, and she had a relatively large mole at the corner of her mouth.
What surprised Taylor wasn’t the woman or her appearance. It was the man standing behind her in standard Army BDUs. On one shoulder he had a patch showing the sword and lightning bolts signifying Army Special Forces with a Ranger tab just above it. His uniform also had insignia indicating he was jump qualified, and another insignia showing he was assigned to the Pentagon.
He appeared to be in his late forties or early fifties, with brown hair already on its way to gray.
Taylor turned his attention away from the soldier, and back to the short woman in front of him.
“As-salamu ‘alaykum,” he said to her.
“And to you,” she said in accented but clear English. “Please, come in.”
The woman stepped aside, extending out an arm welcoming Taylor into her home.
“Thank you,” he said, and stepped through the door and past her, extending a hand to the soldier who had also stepped aside.
“Colonel,” Taylor said as they shook, identifying the man from the small, silver Eagles on his shoulders.
“Thank you for coming, Sergeant,” the man responded, shaking his hand.
Taylor turned back to Robles with a questioning look as the Colonel had correctly identified the rank Taylor last held in the military.
“I have some calls to make and will be out in the car,” Robles said with a somewhat guilty expression, turning and walking away without an explanation.
“Don’t blame him,” the Colonel said, “he gave me some information about you when you agreed to come down and speak with Naziah. I pulled your records after that.”
“That makes sense, I guess,” Taylor replied, “although now you have me at a disadvantage.”
As they spoke, the Colonel led Taylor into a room adjacent to the entry way, gesturing at a small couch. The woman followed behind them, and sat in one of the two plush chairs across from the couch, with the Colonel taking the other.
On the table was a pitcher of what looked to be lemonade, along with several glasses. Taylor was again surprised since the traditional drink you would be served in most Middle Eastern homes would be tea.
“This is Jason Keene,” the woman said by way of explanation. “He’s a family friend.”
“Naziah’s husband Fuad served with my unit during Iraqi Freedom,” Colonel Keene said. “I’ve known Samar since he was eleven years old.”
“I take it you don’t think he is guilty of what the FBI is accusing him of, Colonel?”
“No, I don’t. And please call me Jason.”
Taylor nodded and turned to Naziah, “Tell me about your son.”
“He’s a good boy. He loved his father very much and was very sad when he died. He was always proud of his father, and would sometimes salute him when Fuad left the house in his uniform. He said he wanted to be a soldier like his father when he grew up. Fuad wasn’t a soldier of course, but Samar was little and did not understand the difference. He just knew his father dressed in a military uniform and left with American soldiers. He loved America, and the day he enlisted was the happiest of his life. He would never do what they are saying.”
“It’s hard for a parent to really know their kids. Are you sure he hadn’t made any friends that might have ... changed his way of thinking.”
“Not like you are suggesting. His friends were all Americans. We are not a religious family, Mr. Taylor. We did not attend the mosque very often. He didn’t even follow halal, although I still do. He played sports in high school and was popular. He hadn’t planned on attending college. Since we came to America, his only dream was to join the military. He enlisted in the Army the day he turned eighteen.”
“Is it possible he was reading anything that might have radicalized him?”
“He didn’t read much, but when he did, it was Tom Clancy or books like that. I knew all of his friends, at least until he shipped out to basic training.”
“Maybe on the internet.”
“Not while he lived with me. He hardly used the computer. I’m telling you I knew my son. He wasn’t like that.”
The older woman was becoming agitated, her accent becoming thicker as she spoke faster.
“I knew this kid,” Colonel Keene said, breaking in. “Samar was like the little brother I never had. I would visit as often as I could. I went to his games, bought him his first football. I spent time with him, and I can tell you I didn’t see a hint of it. I’ve also talked to some of the guys he went through Basic with. They describe him being about as All-American as you can get.”
“How about something not related to his religion. Did he owe someone money?”
“Enough to blow himself up over?” the Colonel replied.
“Good point. Maybe he didn’t know that was going to happen. Maybe he sold his code?”
“He would not have done that. He was his father’s son. To Samar, this country was everything,” Naziah said, practically spitting in anger.
“Maybe he was blackmailed. Maybe he had a vendetta against someone in that armory. Maybe he took some kind of drug and went nuts like that guy in Florida who ate someone’s face.”
Naziah skin darkened as she stood shakily up, “Why are you saying these things. He was a good boy.”
She turned to look at the Colonel, tears slipping down her cheeks, “This was a mistake. We should have not have invited this man here.”
“I’m sorry, I am not trying to dishonor your son. I just am trying to think of anything that might back up the FBI’s current direction. I’ve seen these guys up close. I know how the FBI thinks. It’s not going to be enough to prove someone else did this. We are going to have to prove Samar did not do it, which is a lot harder. Otherwise, they will just reclassify him from some lone wolf to a member of whoever it is that actually did do it.”
Keene reached across and laid his hand on the weathered skin of the old woman, gently guiding her back into her chair.
“He’s right, Naziah. I know his questions are hard; but we need to think of every angle, so we know what to say when the feds start asking these exact questions. And he’s right, they will ask these, and probably more. This, more than anything, proves we didn’t make a mistake. He’s the right man for this.”
“But why? My son is dead, and now the country he loved has decided to make him into a monster. It isn’t fair.”
Taylor sat quietly for a moment, hunched over, elbows on his knees with fingers steepled together, the tips resting on his lips. His brow furrowed in thought as his hosts stared expectantly.
Taylor flashed back to a chase down the side of an Afghan mountain and a desperate escape from a terrorist camp. It wasn’t the terrorists Taylor was remembering; but the people who found him, broken and dying, at the bottom of that mountain.
They had risked their lives to take him to their village and nurse him back to health. Had the Taliban, Al-Qaeda or any of the other terrorists or warlords that called that God-forsaken stretch of land home found him, they would have killed whole swathes of villagers.
These people risked their lives, their family’s lives, their children’s lives to save an incoherent, semiconscious, wreck of a man they found in a mountain ravine. They did it because it was the right thing to do. Now here Taylor sat, given a second chance at life, with a grieving mother crying in front of him asking about what was right and what was wrong.
After more than a minute of silence, he put his arms down.
“I believe you,” he said, his voice cracking slightly. “I’ll look into it, and see if I can find out who did this and why.”
The old woman stood and hobbled over to him, reaching out and gripping Taylor’s forearm.
“Thank you, Sergeant Taylor. Thank you. Barak Allah fik. May God bless you ... thank you.”
Taylor looked past her to the Colonel, not trusting himself to look at Naziah when he said, “I want to be clear. I will follow this wherever it goes. I am not trying to prove he is innocent! I am just going to try and find the truth. If I find evidence that he actually did this, I will hand it over to the FBI.”
“That’s all we ask. We know who Samar was, and we know what you’re going to find.”
Taylor helped the old woman sit down on the couch, but she never let go of his hand, gripping as if Taylor were a lifeline and she were stranded in the ocean. Which, in many ways, was true.
“Of course, doing that is easier said than done. I don’t have any type of access or resources. I’m pretty sure the FBI isn’t going to let me just waltz into the crime scene.”
“Actually,” the Colonel said, “I might be able to help with that. I have several favors I can call in. Don’t worry, Sergeant, I’ll get you through the door.
Proofread by Wyden, edited by TeNderLoin, last one through Tyketriker